Sexual and reproductive health

UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children

The Commission has one critical objective: to make affordable and effective medicines and health supplies available to the women and children who need them most. Worldwide, 358 000 women currently die during pregnancy and childbirth every year. Every year an estimated 7.6 million children die before their fifth birthday because of preventable and treatable conditions.

"Many of these deaths could be prevented - if those mothers and children could only access a basic set of medicines and health supplies," says Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director General for Family, Women's and Children's Health.

Mothers and babies wait for health workers to arrive to receive antenatal and postnatal check-ups at a health post in a village in Nepal.
Mothers and babies wait for health workers to arrive to receive antenatal and postnatal check-ups at a health post in a village in Nepal.
Ashok Bhurtyal, Courtesy of Photoshare

For example, all women giving birth should receive oxytocin. Oxytocin is recommended by WHO as a priority medicine against postpartum haemorrhage, the leading cause of maternal death. Children should be treated with antibiotics for pneumonia, and zinc and oral rehydration solution for diarrhoea. WHO has published a list of priority medicines for mothers and children that includes these drugs and promotes them through policy statements and clinical guidelines.

The problem is not simply one of cost. Many of these products are relatively cheap. Zinc and oral rehydration solutions for diarrhoea cost less than $US 0.50 per treatment dose. Antibiotics such as amoxicillin for pneumonia cost about $US 0.30 per treatment dose.

The major obstacles are inefficient procurement and supply systems, poor partner collaboration, and lack of crucial reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health commodities on national essential medicines lists. Solving bottlenecks in these areas would radically help country health systems function better, enabling more people have access to vital health services.

And this is what the Commission sets out to do. Drawing on the best evidence available today, the Commission will recommend changes in the way life-saving commodities like oxytocin, misoprostol, magnesium sulfate, zinc and amoxicillin are made available, distributed and used. The Commission will also review and make recommendations regarding essential but underutilized contraceptives, like the female condom, hormonal implants, and emergency contraceptives.

Co-chairs President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, together with a wide range of Commissioners including private sector CEOs, NGO representatives, government ministers, representatives from donor organizations, social media leaders, and other experts will use high-level advocacy to translate technical knowledge into political action. UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake and UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin will serve as Vice-Chairs.

The Commission is working in support of Every Woman, Every Child - the unprecedented global movement spearheaded by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to save 16 million lives by 2015. It aims to finalize its recommendations for action by June 2012, and release its final report shortly afterwards.

WHO actively contributed to the development of background materials for the commission. The Organization will continue to play an active role in following up on its forthcoming recommendations in country and regional settings, providing policy advice to governments. WHO will focus on regulatory processes for commodities, support prequalification of medicines and other health supplies, and contribute to negotiations of public sector price for these commodities.